Picture This!

Employing imagery to foster human connections within the built environment
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By Amanda C Voss, MPP
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What is Biophilia?

Biophilia conveys the natural connection to the greater ecological system that people crave. Biophilia refers to the human desire to connect with nature and other living things. Biophilic design can come via many forms. A project utilizing biophilic design may incorporate nature-related imagery, increase the use of natural lighting, maximize natural ventilation, and integrate natural textures in finishes and furnishings.

Defined by psychologist Eric Fromm in 1964, the concept of the biophilic experience was examined and popularized in 1984 by the sociobiologist EO Wilson in his book Biophilia.9 Wilson defined biophilia as “the innate tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes”. He utilized the term “biophilia” to describe his own deep feelings of connection to nature during a period of exploration and immersion in the natural world. Wilson postulated that this biophilic propensity developed as part of evolutionary survival and that survival mechanism still encompasses certain characteristics that remain with humans, even in modern cities.10

A core theme from biophilic design literature is that humanity has lost something in its approach to building design in modern times.11 Human affiliation with nature is seen to be historically reflected in organic building designs and materials, in patterning and spaces that mimic those of nature, and in traditional living with close, but respectful proximity, to the natural environment. This movement stands opposed to the sterility and harshness it sees in modernism.

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Bringing biophilic design elements into healthcare settings decreases stress for patients and staff while enhancing healing and recovery.

Professor Semir Zeki found that, as buildings are created and planned, the designer innately has already looked at nature. “It would be surprising if something of that biological experience did not seep into these artifactual designs,” writes Zeki. “Indeed, the Roman architect Vitruvius emphasized that beauty in architecture has its source in the contemplation of the natural world, including the human body.” Architects, in order to capture beauty, often instill into an architectural design certain properties derived from more biological percepts such as those of faces or bodies or landscapes.12 Architects can cater to biophilia through incorporating art in their projects. Art, as displayed through architectural products, allows holistic integration of natural elements.

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Using distinctive combinations of artwork and color enables wayfinding for occupants navigating buildings and campuses.

What are the Benefits of Biophilic Design?

Evidence increasingly shows that biophilic design boosts mental health, healing, and creativity.

The global health challenges of the twenty-first century have highlighted and offered a unique window on the fact that a new way of thinking and a change in how people consider buildings is called for. Americans, on average, spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors.13 That means that they have a minimal 10 percent, or less, of time engaged with natural spaces. Evidence-Based Design indicates the importance of using interior spaces to foster the missing link to nature. Data from studies on healthcare spaces demonstrates that biophilia helps occupant mood, assists in healthcare settings for both patient and staff, and can decrease time spent in recovery for patients.

Healthcare, by necessity, takes place in a controlled, interior space. Patients in healthcare settings often experience high stress, either due to their actual condition or the difficulties of diagnostic procedures and testing.

In 1984, a landmark paper by Dr. Roger Ulrich helped establish the field of Evidence-Based Design. Ulrich’s study found that patients who had hospital rooms with a window required less pain medication and recovered at faster rates than patients in rooms without windows. The organization of healthcare services through an approach that considers human needs in their entirety, and not in a strictly therapeutic sense, is yielding considerable fruit for architectural expression. According to several studies, the humanization of healthcare spaces and contact with nature can empower the patient and have a positive impact by reducing stress and pain and improving emotional well-being.14 Biophilia in medical facilities improves occupant mood, helps in healthcare, and can decrease time spent in recovery for patients. Studies have shown that looking at images of nature is healing, generating an impact similar to actually spending time in nature. Art, then, can become a crucial component of any healthcare space by bringing in the natural world.

“Healthcare facilities that employ the principles of biophilic design improve patient outcomes and reduce staff stress,” writes Gary McNay.15 Simple design choices, like using more natural building materials or installing a circadian lighting system, have allowed healthcare designers to transform hospitals into more comforting environments.

Biophilic elements can also enable wayfinding. Healthcare campuses present a unique set of navigational challenges. Often, these environments have developed over time and encompass multiple buildings. This makes navigation among the buildings complex. In addition, patients and families who visit healthcare campuses are often under stress. Wayfinding systems can help reduce their stress by providing easy-to-follow signage and legible directions to their destinations, according to the Society for Experiential Graphic Design. Using biophilia, and coordinating themes, imagery, and colors, minimizes reliance on text-based messaging and instead places the burden on more easily interpreted non-text cues such as colors and symbols.16

Art in the Healthcare Setting

Art itself can be a powerful healing force. The American Congress of Rehabilitation Medicine (ACRM) lists multiple benefits from art therapy: art reduces stress, improves focus, helps one to better process emotion, enables a person to imagine a more hopeful future, and improves communication skills. Christianne Strang, a professor of neurosciences at the University of Alabama Birmingham and former president of the American Art Therapy Association says: “Creativity in and of itself is important for remaining healthy, remaining connected to yourself and connected to the world.”17

Through studies using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and brain-wave scanning, researchers were able to see that:

  • Pleasure centers in the brain are triggered by viewing art and images.
  • Additionally, several other areas of the brain can be stimulated.

There is increasing evidence in rehabilitation medicine and the field of neuroscience that art enhances brain function by impacting brain wave patterns, emotions, and the nervous system. Art can also raise serotonin levels. These benefits don’t just come from making art, they also occur by experiencing art. Observing art can stimulate the creation of new neural pathways and ways of thinking. Any type of creative expression allows a person to imagine new ways to communicate and engage with the world. It also engages the brain’s neuroplasticity, helping patients recover from things like traumatic brain injuries or stroke, ACRM research states.18

In a study conducted by Zeki, Chair of Neuroaesthetics at University College London, participants underwent brain scans while being shown images of paintings by major artists.19 The study found that when people viewed the art they thought was most beautiful, blood flow increased by as much as 10% to the region of the brain associated with pleasure, the equivalent of looking at a loved one.

Art accesses many of the advanced processes of the human brain, such as intuitive analysis, expressivity, and embodied cognition. Artists are often better observers and have better memory, and this may be due to how art affects the brain’s plasticity.20

Though further studies are certainly required in order to deepen the understanding of the human-nature relationship and its impact on health, as biophilic evidence-based design increases, it is changing the approach regarding patients’ health by considering a new vision of medicine, healthcare and healing environment. It is also providing proof that reinforces the design professional’s urge to incorporate more beauty and natural elements into the built environment.


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in July 2023


Picture This!
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